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Giving Good Critique

The questions I most often hear new writers ask about are on the topic of critiquing. How to find a critique partner or group, how to give a good critique, what to look for from a critique of their own work.  So, The Happy Writer thought it might be a good idea to have a critique week!

Today we’re going to talk about the 14 tips for giving a good critique.

1.    When agreeing to do a critique for someone, ask them what they want from you. Are they looking for a detailed line edit or do they just want to know if their main character is sympathetic or if you can see ways to make her more 3-dimensional?

2.    Don’t pretend to be an expert in an area you’re not. Don’t offer to critique for someone looking for line editing if you can’t spell your way out of a paper bag (a common writerly malady, so don’t despair!). Don’t agree to give feedback on plot if you struggle with it consistently yourself.

3.    On the other hand, DO mention what you’re good at. My strength in critiquing is spelling/punctuation/grammar (without being rigid about the grammar, of course) and dialogue. I can recognize stilted dialogue a mile away and I WILL point it out.  🙂

4.    Don’t offer advice where not wanted.  If they don’t want you to point out every misplaced comma, don’t. If you’re asked to look for plot holes or clarity, then concentrate on those elements. The goal is not to return the manuscript with the most red marks. It is to be the most help you can be to the other writer.

5.    Offer your “opinion.” Don’t tell someone something is right or wrong, but mention when something seems “off” and then be prepared to explain.  Remember that something you dislike in a manuscript may be the favorite part of another reader. And, there’s no one correct way to write something. No book or movie is ever universally liked or disliked by every reader/watcher.

6.    There’s a difference between a critique and negativity. To give a good critique, focus on what works and give encouragement for more of the same. I’ve heard it called the sandwich method — two good things sandwiched around the stuff that needs work. (No need to be rigid about that…but you get the picture. Temper your criticism with encouragement, just as you’d want someone to do with you!) Even a simple “LOL” in the margins when you find something funny can go a long way to encouraging a writer that they are on the right track at least some of the time. You don’t want to discourage the writer from writing, nor do you want them to lose their enthusiasm.

7.    Don’t forget that every writer has their own unique voice. Their voice is not necessarily like your voice, so don’t rewrite the manuscript/dialogue/descriptions, etc!  This isn’t your work.  You can offer suggestions for clarity or for better rhythm, but it’s about their voice, not yours.

8.    Give meaningful feedback. “I just don’t like it” means absolutely nothing to a writer. Be clear, as in, “I didn’t understand the character’s motivation in this scene. It felt out of character for her based on what I know of her from previous chapters.” There’s no point in offering feedback at all, if you can’t do so with clarity. And don’t become defensive if the writer asks for clarification of your critique. Critique partnering should be about communication.

9.    Personal preferences shouldn’t figure into a critique.  Maybe you don’t like heroes named “Harold,” but pointing that out or letting it cloud your judgment of the piece isn’t constructive.

10.  Ultimately, the work is theirs. Don’t be attached to whether or not they take your advice. Your job is to offer suggestions. Their job is to choose what works for them.

11.  Learn from the work you critique…both what’s good and what doesn’t work for you.  As I’ve pointed out passive voice in my critique partner’s manuscripts, I’ve become more aware of my own (and got a huge laugh when I pulled out an old manuscript and discovered to my horror that I was once very devoted to my own passive voice!).

12.  Be honest about your time.  Don’t agree to critique an entire manuscript in a week if you don’t have time or it will take away from your own writing time. Any critique you give under duress will be less thoughtful and sloppier than no critique at all.

13.  Ditch the negativity before you read the first line.  Never pick up a manuscript to critique while feeling homicidal. It’ll come across in your critique through snide or snarky comments that won’t do anyone any good, least of all the person you’re supposed to be “helping.” Consider how much more positive the experience will be if both you as the reader and the writer walk away from each critique in a positive frame of mind.

14.  Find a way to be encouraging.  Debbie Macomber was once told by an editor she should just give up writing. Now she’s published well over a hundred books, is a New York Times Bestselling Author, and has had several movies made of her books. You never know whose manuscript you may be critiquing. It’s possible your encouragement will be what keeps them going.

Can you think of anything I’ve missed about being a good critique partner? Have you found your own perfect fit in a critique partner or group? Tell us about it!

Later this week, we’ll talk about how to be a good “critiquee.”

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